Sunday, May 20, 2012

GOT 'IM - Star Ocean: Second Evolution

This is a game I've owned in some form or another for over a decade, and have bought, sold, and re-bought. The original version is one of the all-time favorite games of my good buddy Jon (formerly Heavy Jon). The second (remade) game in a cult favorite series, Star Ocean: Second Evolution.

I played the first PSP Star Ocean remake, First Departure, way back in 2010. It wasn't bad at all, with several recruitable characters, a charming setting, and an entertaining battle system. First Departure was also beatable in about 15-18 hours, which worked in its favor in that it ended before it really wore out its welcome. From what I understand (and have played of the much-less-fun Super Famicom original Star Ocean), First Departure's battle system is basically lifted from Star Ocean 2's, and Second Evolution changes very little of its PlayStation original's action, only cleaning up the sprites and some battle graphics. In either case, First Departure's best aspect was its combat, and Second Evolution receives that torch gracefully.

I'll start by talking about that combat. Why not? I already gave myself a segue. Star Ocean 2's combat was highly entertaining back in the late 90s and holds up today. Combat takes place on an eight-way 3D field, and players can combo, use special moves and spells, and switch between characters on the fly. If you think that sounds like a Tales Of game, then you're right. Tri-Ace, the Star Ocean studio, was founded by Namco castoffs that had worked on the first few Tales games. So this is an 8-way-run Tales-esque combat system before Tales even went there, and it's done pretty well. Your characters have a free run from the get-go, and the selection of spells and skills is pretty strong. Nothing mind-blowing compared to action RPG combat today, but definitely lively and fun.

So the combat was good, and that was one reason I kept playing. Star Ocean 2's skill system... started out as annoying, intimidating, and unintuitive, but once I had enough skill points to exploit it and got used to the different skills, I became a fan. There are an overwhelming number of common skills and specialties your characters can invest in, from Music to Writing to Faeriology to GodSpeed (basically quickness in combat). Combining different levels of expertise can give surprising benefits, from creating powerful items (all of the most powerful weapons and armor in the game that I found were crafted) to gaining significant stat boosts. I found the last quarter or so of Star Ocean 2 very, very easy in large part because I messed around with the Orchestra, Alchemy, Customization, and Blacksmith specialties to such a degree that I was creating weapons and armor far beyond anything found in dungeons or towns.

That's the most fun to be found in Star Ocean 2. Entertaining combat, and a startlingly broad and deep skill system. By the endgame, with a little bit of creative exploitation of those systems, every enemy will wilt in your path short of the final bonus dungeon (which I never tried). But I've been doing this review a little backwards - first game, then plot. So let's talk story. The setup: Claude is a young cadet working on a spaceship, and a freak accident strands him on an unexplored planet called Expel. A young Expelian girl named Rena finds Claude, sees him use a laser pistol to fend off a monster, and assumes he's a hero from Expelian lore that wields a sword of light. Long story short, Rena and Claude venture out to right wrongs and make friends in Expel, and shit gets out of hand.

Now, that setup isn't the problem. The Star Ocean tradition of recruiting eight characters from a pool of ten-plus isn't the problem, either. These characters are, for the most part, RPG cliches that are interesting and different enough not to hamper enjoyment, and the recruitment mechanic enhances replay value and forces the player to make hard choices (this is a good thing). The problem is the arbitrary and random nature of plot events. Once the plot hits its game-changing moment, roughly a dozen new characters are all introduced at once and spend twenty minutes explaining backstory to you. This is not good storytelling. By the final stretch, I was playing to put Star Ocean 2 behind me rather than playing to see the ending. Add in occasionally awful pacing and backtracking and at times Star Ocean 2 feels like a chore.

The dungeons and towns in Star Ocean 2 are... unspecial. Windy tunnels with occasional treasure chests, dead ends, and puzzles; small towns and castle towns and future towns and imperial martial law towns; there is nothing new that you haven't seen before. That plus unfortunately slow pacing will have you backtracking through virtually every dungeon you visit (I wanted an escape spell SO MUCH and never got one). There's also an annoying penchant to have long conversations on such matters as obtaining permits; for the most part, the RPG storytelling conventions found in Star Ocean 2 are frustrating dinosaurs that I suffered through rather than enjoyed.

Oh, but I'm not done talking about narrative yet. I mentioned before the the characters aren't bad, and that's true. One interesting Star Ocean tradition: when you explore towns, you can perform a "Personal Action" that gives you control of your main character, with your other seven wandering around town on their own. This gives you new dialog options with townspeople and lets you have direct conversations with your teammates, like talking on the Normandy in Mass Effect. Personal Actions are useful and interesting, but I wish they were a little more smoothly incorporated. Having to explore and re-explore every town isn't fun, and a lot of semi-important stuff MUST happen during PAs at specific times and places (recruiting new characters, getting relationship points that change endings, etc.). I missed out on recruiting at least one character I wanted to meet by screwing up timing on a PA, and I probably missed a ton of bonus dialogue. I suppose it's okay in the long run, because that's what multiple playthroughs are for.

Star Ocean 2 has dozens of endings, corresponding to which characters you recruit and how you answer their questions in Personal Actions. That, along with the fact that it's impossibly to recruit every character in a single playthrough, add to the game's replay value significantly. I beat Second Evolution in roughly 30 hours, but I didn't really know what I was doing and spent a lot of time building shit through the skill system. This game could easily be conquered in 20 hours, which is a little short compared to other RPGs of the same era; if it had been much longer, I'm not sure I would've had the patience to finish it.

That's about enough. Star Ocean: Second Evolution is fun for its combat and skills, but slightly mired in RPG traditionalism. If you really love it (and goodness knows it's popular in RPG circles), then there's loads of replay value in those extra characters and different endings. Just don't expect me to play it again anytime soon.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution

Targets: 3/12


Glad I wrapped this one up. Next I'll be going back to Red Dead Redemption on my PS3 and start thinking about my next few game projects. Oh, plus moving into my new place. There's that.

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